Transforming food production with cellular agriculture
Far more than a sci-fi pipe dream, vertical agriculture – where food is produced in small spaces with high efficiency and minimal waste – is already a reality. Cellular agriculture could be seen as an extension of vertical farming, where producers use biotechnology to replace animal and plant-based ingredients in existing foods – as well as to create entirely new food products and business opportunities.
By Lauri Reuter, Senior Specialist, Disruptive Technologies at VTT
Over the course of human history, food production has gone through several distinct phases. Hunting and gathering gave way to farming, which in turn gave rise to large-scale industrial food production. These transitions have allowed us to produce more food to feed a larger population. But we are now facing the environmental consequences of this continuous upscaling.
The move to vertical agriculture is about providing better sustainability and resilience – producing food without causing harm to the environment and regardless of the challenges caused by a changing climate. One of the big advantages of vertical agriculture is that food production becomes independent of the environment. Instead of relying on fields and seasons, food can be produced wherever and whenever.
Vertical farming can already be competitive with greenhouse or field grown produce
“When you compare us with traditional greenhouse growing, we use the same amount of energy but cut water use by 90% while getting much better yield with consistent high quality,” says Robert Jordas, founder of Robbe’s Lilla Trädgard, which specializes in growing lettuce and herbs. “Vertical farming can already be competitive with greenhouse or field grown produce, and this should only improve as the technologies mature.”
Cellular agriculture takes the vertical agriculture concept even further to maximize efficiency and minimize waste by using bioreactors to ‘farm’ cells. These cells can be ‘programmed’ to produce certain proteins – for example, using modified yeast to brew the proteins that make up milk – or they can be grown as a ready-to-consume mass.
Cellular agriculture allows us to tackle some of the biggest issues relating to food production, such as the ethical concerns that arise from using animals as a source of food and the need for antibiotics in large-scale milk and meat production. What’s more, as land use for agriculture is also the main cause of biodiversity loss, a switch to closed systems means food can be produced without impacting precious and irreplaceable natural habitats.
Not just a vision, but a reality
Vertical and cellular agriculture are not far-flung ideas from a theoretical vision of the future – they are already happening. Urban and formerly industrial indoor areas are being used to grow traditional crops with modern methods, and cellular agriculture has been around for longer than you might think. Quorn – a meat substitute made of Fusarium microfungus grown in a tank – has been on the market since the 1980s and is projected to become a billion-dollar-a-year business within the next decade. Impossible Foods is creating vegan products that replicate the taste and behavior of meat by adding a heme containing protein that is grown in bioreactors. Memphis Meats is relying on ‘cultured meat’, where animal cells are grown and multiplied outside the animal in a bioreactor, meaning nutrients and water are used much more efficiently. Producing eggs and gelatin is another area where cellular agriculture makes sense.
We’re bringing an egg white to the table that is produced completely animal-free
For example, Clara Foods is working towards creating the world’s first animal-free egg white. “As much as the growing market demands for egg production exert pressure on hatcheries to improve their efficiencies and outputs, there is also growing public distaste for the environmental, animal welfare, and health compromises of industrial-scale egg production. We aim to subvert this moral and economic deadlock by taking the chicken out of the equation. We’re bringing an egg white to the table that is produced completely animal-free and uses less land and water inputs, while matching the taste, nutritional value, and unique culinary properties of hen-borne egg whites, “ says Joel Kreps, VP, Strain Engineering and Technology, Clara Foods.
Market disruption – or a business opportunity?
As with many new technologies, traditional producers are at risk of being disrupted. New biotech production models are already challenging the dominant factory-farming model. But are there also opportunities for established agricultural companies as well as start-ups? By replacing animal or plant-based ingredients that vary in price and quality, producers could expect better product consistency and price stability.
In the future, more ingredients of traditional products will be replaced with products made using cellular agriculture. Take rennet for example, a key enzyme in cheese production. In the past, rennet could only be extracted from the stomach lining of a slaughtered cow. Nowadays, it’s produced in a bioreactor. Sticking with the example of cheese, with production capabilities developing quickly, this would mean the milk used to produce it would no longer need to come from a cow either. The age-old chicken and egg question would also become redundant – what chicken? “Think about it – a cow is a bioreactor that produces milk. All that cellular agriculture does is remove the cow from the process. This not only leads to better price predictability and more ethical production, but also the ability to scale production more easily,” says Emilia Nordlund, Research team leader, Food solutions, VTT.
By adopting cellular agriculture, an established company could also introduce new and improved products to the market. “Dairy, for example, is a multibillion dollar business that essentially hasn’t changed in decades. Cellular agriculture isn’t just about making dairy, eggs, or meat without the animal – it’s about making new and better versions of these foods,” says Christopher Landowski, Research Team Leader at VTT.
Partnering to get the right expertise
The first hurdle for companies considering the leap into cellular agriculture is determining the best way to get started. The traditional method would be to recruit the required scientific expertise or buy a start-up that is already working with these technologies. Sounds simple, but both these approaches would require a large amount of investment and, crucially, would attract the attention of competitors.
Partnering with VTT is a much more cost-effective alternative. “We not only have decades of experience in biotechnology, we also have a good idea of where things are going in the future. That’s why we want to work with companies to help them produce technological solutions for new and existing products – especially those that are good from both a business and environmental point of view,” says Nordlund. “VTT is unique in that we are a one-stop shop. We have the full range of services under one roof, from establishing a business case to mapping the technology required for production, to consumer testing to establish if a new product has potential.”
VTT can both produce proteins using a microbe, for example milk or egg proteins from yeast, and use the whole cell to produce readily consumable food, for example growing cloudberry cells as a mass. Producers can work with VTT to test proof of concept for everything from ingredient replacements to the creation of entirely new products. VTT can also provide support at every phase of a project, from ideation and co-creation, determining a concept’s economic feasibility, and performing consumer research, all the way to a finished product – all of which are challenging and expensive to do independently.
“Alongside digitalization of the supply chain, cellular agriculture is going to be as massive a change for agriculture as the internet was for other businesses. There is a perfect storm of change coming to the food industry, but we can help companies to weather this storm, seize the opportunities it generates, and renew their businesses,” says Landowski.
Emilia Nordlund, Research Team Leader, email@example.com, +358 40 504 2963
Christopher Landowski, Research team leader, Christopher.Landowski@vtt.fi, +358 40 482 0856
Lauri Reuter, Senior Specialist, Lauri.Reuter@vtt.fi, +358 40 159 2273
View our on-demand (17.5.2018) webinar: Food without Fields -Cellular agriculture for sustainable food production